July 16th, 2014


The Music Instinct, by Philip Ball

How Music Works And Why We Can't Do Without It

Finally. I think this is the book I wanted about music. It wasn't Music, the Brain, and Ecstasy, and it wasn't The Singing Neanderthals. This is the one. (Although it's curious that Pinker's dismissive(?) comment about music being "auditory cheesecake" also appears early on in this book, which might be considered a response as well.)

It covers many different aspects of music from the basics of how brains interpret sound, harmonies, melodies, longer structures, emotion, and the analogies between language and music. Lots of accessible examples, from major works of the classical repertoire to nursery rhymes, The King and I, The Beatles and Zeppelin. And even if you can't read music, the book has a nice online site, where you can listen to the various figures in the text. And obviously the discussions in the text may give you ideas for new music to try out. I was intrigued by the description of the use of the prosody of spoken speech in Reich's Different Trains, and despite playing the Holocaust card, it's certainly an interesting experiment.

Another interesting thread that runs through much of the book is the idea that, even if you think you're 'not very musical' you probably have a ridiculous amount of musical ability in unexpected ways. It's maybe not too surprising that after hearing a short piece of melody, you can do better than chance at identifying whether certain other notes played at you either belong or don't belong to the 'key' the piece is written in. But apparently, you can do this for gamelan music, which uses not only different scales, but quite different pitch intervals from those in Western music. From listening to a half second sample of a song, you can do better than chance at assigning it to categories like rock, C&W or jazz.

Back to scales, in some ways the do-re-me-fa-sol-la-ti-do seems so natural and correct, that it's hard (for me) to imagine it not being somehow dictated by necessity. And yet it's a convention. And this book helped explain a lot of the issues around that. Probably old hat to people who have actually, you know, studied music academically, but it was eye-opening to me. I mean, we have 12 pitches in our diatonic scale. 12 slices easily. Why don't we have a heptave of six equal tone steps (with the 7th bringing us back to 'do')? Apart from sounding weird, it might be that there would be no such thing as a 'key' in that system. The hemitone steps in the standard scale provide some texture or pattern that your brain can latch on to, so that it can identify a key, and the key changes, in a song.

By the time I got to the end of the book, I had already forgotten all sorts of interesting things, so I think it will bear a rereading. I was a little surprised that Ball is 'just' a freelance writer (though also an "avid amateur musician"), because he seems so at home with all of the musical terms and all of the research. As someone with musical training, but no real knowledge of music theory or musical 'scholarship', I found it very accessible and entertaining. Being able to read music is helpful, but probably not necessary (especially if you use the website to listen to those excerpts.)

“We’re headed for a brick wall at 100 miles per hour...

... [and] the effects of climate change are branches hitting the windshield along the way.”

The Last Drop: America's Breadbasket Faces Dire Water Crisis - an eye-opening look at the depletion of the Ogallala Aquifer. I think the most mind-blowing fact is that, in the great state of Texas, water is not a public resource:

No other state’s water law allows such unfettered individual control. The danger, especially apparent as the Ogallala disappears, is that it favors an individual motivated to turn a profit in the present day above community needs of the future.

The Texas law allowed billionaire oil tycoon T. Boone Pickens to sell trillions of gallons of Ogallala Aquifer water beneath 211,000 acres surrounding his majestic Mesa Vista ranch, in Roberts County, near the Texas-Oklahoma border. In 2011, the now 85-year-old sold his water rights for $103 million to 11 water-impoverished cities nearby, including Lubbock and Amarillo.
Elsewhere, particularly in Kansas, farmers irrigating where the Ogallala is shallowest are required to meter their wells, observe water-use restrictions, and are fined for not doing so.

Landowners in the HPWD – even today – can choose to suck their portion of the Ogallala dry any time they like.

Whew! I'm sure glad California has no water problems!

Okay, one last general update

Our house continues to slowly creep toward the state of being someone else's house.

Tomorrow will begin the great adventure of tenting & fumigation. Also known as the adventure of living with two cats in a hotel room.

We've made offers here and there, and have a couple out at the moment, but so far nothing definite. Got outbid again on the hipster palace, which popped briefly back onto the market.

Two weekends back, Jackie&Andy invited us over for some brats & games with some other good folks. Got another chance at Risk Legacy, but since I got to place my HQ last, I was in a tight spot from the start. I convinced people to attack Dr. Pookie, so at least I caused connubial strife. I survived, but was never much of a threat to anyone.

One weekend back, we got visited by Dr. Pookie's friend from high school, and her three kids. We grilled up teriyaki chicken and (mostly) kept the wee ones entertained. Good times.